After responding to an ad offering “attractive young girls” $200 a week to work at Hugh Hefner’s infamous New York Playboy Club, now-famous feminist, author, and activist, Gloria Steinem, donned the classic Bunny outfit and spent nearly a month working undercover as part of a searing Show Magazine exposé.
In her New York Times bestselling book, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Steinem returns readers to that very assignment. In a series of diary-like entries, she reveals an ugly underside of a sexual revolution that Hefner populated with women dressed in revealing costumes and men who ogled them. As she reveals the shocking incidents that followed her hiring in late January of 1963, readers get an up-close look at the outrageous employment practices of Playboy Clubs, including the astonishingly meager wages, violent threats, intense objectification, and harassment the Bunnies experienced.
The piece made Steinem a target of intimidation and ridicule by those attached to Hefner’s empire—including the tycoon himself—and, for a time, prevented her from getting serious assignments within the male-dominated journalism industry. While Steinem initially had regrets about the two-part feature, she has since spoken about what she learned—including how her work unmasked the misogyny behind Hefner and his clubs, which were both praised as symbols of sexual emancipation.
On September 27, 2017, Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner passed away at the age of 91. But his sexual empire will live on, ensuring that Steinem’s words and lessons remain ever relevant.
Read on for an excerpt from Gloria Steinem’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.
Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Gloria Steinem
Among the short-term results of this article were:
1) A long letter from Hugh Hefner saying that “your beef about the physical given the girls before they start work at the club prompted my eliminating it.” (He defended it as “a good idea,” but noted that my article was not the first time it had been “misunderstood and turned into something questionable.”) He also included the first seven installments of his own Playboy Philosophy. For most of the three-page letter, however, he insisted he didn’t mind the article at all.
2) “A one-million-dollar libel suit against me and a small, now defunct New York newspaper that had printed a report on my article, as well as allegations that the manager of the New York Playboy Club had clear Mafia connections. Though those allegations were not in any quote from me, I seem to have been included in the libel suit as a harassment gesture. I spent many unpleasant hours in depositions, and being threatened with punitive damages. Eventually, the newspaper settled out of court without reference to me. I was told by other reporters that such harassing actions, with or without actionable grounds, were a frequent way of discouraging or punishing journalists.
3) Serving as a witness for the New York State Liquor Authority to identify printed instructions given to me as a Bunny so they could be entered in evidence in a case against the Playboy Club for maintaining a public liquor license while advertising as a private club. This was related to the fact that the Playboy Club had paid to get its liquor license, then turned state’s evidence against the same officials. The State Liquor Authority fought back with the public/private suit in which they asked me to testify. Lawyers told me that other Bunnies they had approached had been afraid to testify, even on the simple question of identifying instruction sheets in which we were told to emphasize the private, exclusive nature of the club. Having seen many movies about courtroom proceedings in which justice prevailed, I agreed. After a Playboy Club lawyer had spent cross-examination time trying to demonstrate that I was a liar and a female of low moral character, I began to understand why the other Bunnies had refused. In the end, the Playboy Club kept their public liquor license.
4) Several weeks of obscene and threatening phone calls from a man with great internal knowledge of the Playboy Club.
5) Loss of serious journalistic assignments because I had now become a Bunny—and it didn’t matter why.
Among the long-term results of this article are:
1) Feet permanently enlarged by a half size by the very high heels and long hours of walking with heavy trays.
2) Satisfaction two decades later when the Playboy Club’s payments for a New York State liquor license were cited as one of the reasons for New Jersey’s decision that Playboy Enterprises was unfit to operate a gambling casino in Atlantic City until its relationship with Hugh Hefner, its founder and principal owner, was severed.
3) Continual printing by Playboy magazine of my employee photograph as a Bunny amid ever more pornographic photos of other Bunnies. The 1983 version insisted in a caption that my article “boosted Bunny recruiting.” The 1984 version was a photo taken at a dinner while I was reaching upward and my evening gown had slipped, exposing part of one breast. It was a benefit for the Ms. Foundation for Women, and also my fiftieth birthday. No other publication used this photo. But Playboy never forgets.
4) Thirty years of occasional phone calls from past and present Bunnies with revelations about their working conditions and the sexual demands on them. In the first few years, my callers were amazed that I had used my own name on the article. One said she had been threatened with “acid thrown in my face” when she complained about the sexual use of the Bunnies. Another quoted the same alleged threat as a response to trying to help Bunnies unionize. All said they were amazed to find my name listed in the phone book. Eventually, I had to switch to an unlisted phone.
5) In 1984, a dramatized version of this article starring Kirstie Alley, then an unknown, in my role as reporter, was made for television. It had a terrible title, “A Bunny’s Tale,” but was a good film, largely because director Karen Arthur got the women together to not only rehearse but to get to know each other; something virtually unheard of in television. A former Bunny from the Chicago Playboy Mansion also volunteered to be technical director. She had seen young women destroyed by drugs, and wanted to help us show the backstage realities of these women’s lives. Though she said she received threatening phone calls, she stayed on the set; an exact replica of the New York Playboy Club constructed from the architect’s drawings. Hugh Hefner was said to have tried to use his other television properties to pressure ABC out of doing this production, but it was shown, continued to be aired for four years on ABC, and is still re-run on Lifetime. Last year, the young woman in my neighborhood coffee shop said it had meant a lot to her, that her boyfriend also watched and finally understood what she went through as a waitress. That meant a lot to me.
6) Realizing that all women are Bunnies. After feminism arrived in my life, I stopped regretting that I had written this article. Thanks to the television version, I also began to take pleasure in the connections it made with women who might not have picked up a feminist book or magazine, but who responded to the rare sight of realistic working conditions and a group of women who supported each other.”